R.I.’s Climate Solutions: Smartly Sited Renewables and Protected Natural Resources

By MEG KERR and ERIKA NIEDOWSKI

Climate change is already impacting Rhode Island. Coastal communities are experiencing regular high-tide flooding and intense storms are increasingly common. To address climate change, Rhode Island is facing an urgent challenge: how to quickly transition from fossil fuels and accelerate the pace of renewable-energy development while protecting the state’s natural resources.

Renewable-energy siting challenges aren’t unique to Rhode Island, but they are particularly pronounced given the state’s small size and high population density. Rhode Island has made ambitious commitments to renewable-energy deployment and carbon emissions reductions. The Resilient Rhode Island Act sets targets of reducing emissions 45 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.

As the state progresses toward its renewable-energy goals, pressures are increasing to develop land with solar or wind resources, causing concern in some communities, especially rural ones. With smart local siting policies, both of the two “green” goals of renewable energy and land conservation can be achieved. Rhode Island communities can enjoy both the benefits of renewables and be good stewards of our landscapes and habitats.

The Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee, of which Acadia Center and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island are members, is discussing ways to prioritize the siting of renewable energy in places that minimize environmental impacts, including rooftops and previously altered environments such as landfills.

Unlike in Massachusetts, Rhode Island doesn’t have policies that specifically encourage siting on developed and disturbed places. Some projects are being sited in these locations under current programs, but many renewable-energy developers are gravitating toward so-called “greenfields” because of simple economics that currently make those sites more attractive.

Faced with difficult siting challenges, some states are taking an unproductive path. Maine’s governor has proposed a moratorium on all new wind projects, which is not the answer. Rhode Island must continue to seek thoughtful, sustainable solutions through a robust stakeholder process.

Earlier this year, the Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee adopted 13 consensus principles that reflect the input of everyone from conservationists and farm interests to renewable-energy developers and municipal planners.

Much work remains to be done. But in the meantime, we offer a few recommendations to policymakers:

Continue Rhode Island’s strong support for conservation and energy efficiency, the cleanest, cheapest and most consumer-friendly “fuel” available. Energy efficiency lowers consumer, business and municipal utility bills, supports local jobs, and there are no siting challenges.

Maximize the siting of solar installations on residential and commercial rooftops. Acadia Center’s EnergyVision 2030 Rhode Island Progress Report shows that the Ocean State is lagging regional leaders on distributed solar resources, which help avoid the siting of projects in sensitive environmental areas. Rooftop solar is not the only answer, but we can do more to support it.

Quickly implement strategies to change the economics of siting and encourage cost-effective renewables development on commercial and industrial zoned land, on already developed land, and in other locations with environmental alterations such as closed landfills, brownfields and parking lots.

Both Acadia Center and the Audubon Society are committed to achieving a climate-safe Rhode Island that safeguards its natural habitats for generations to come. All Rhode Islanders are in this together: after all, no one will be able to enjoy Rhode Island’s forests, coastlines and open spaces if we don’t act to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Erika Niedowski is policy advocate in the Providence office of Acadia Center. Meg Kerr is senior director of policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.